Trigger warning: references to suicide and sexual assault.
The Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, developed by Brian Yorkey, is set to debut its second season from 18 May 2018. This show has passed itself off as a dialogue on mental health. As a person who has been dealing with mental health issues for 12 years now, this is a look back at how the show was extremely irresponsible and went a little too far while trying to increase viewership.
13 Reasons Why is narrated in the form of teenage protagonist Hannah Baker’s suicide note. The show commences soon after Hannah commits suicide and leaves behind 13 tapes explaining why she decided to take her life. 13 episodes then follows each tape addressing the select individuals who subjected her to varied forms of neglect and abuse, through the focal lens of secondary protagonist Clay Jensen – Hannah’s classmate who was in love with her, but was unable to tell her how he genuinely felt about her.
As a person who has been dealing with mental health issues for 12 years now, this is a look back at how the show was extremely irresponsible.
I will not get into all the criticism that 13 Reasons Why received and everything that was wrong with the show. We are aware of its graphic display of suicide, sexual harassment and rape. We also know that it received a lot of criticism from viewers, parents, teachers and counsellors for the latter. Organisations working on mental health issued warnings. Months after its release (too late), cast members from 13 Reasons Why participated in a cautionary notice video.
I am not a professional and I will not take any control over narratives on mental health and pass off my opinions as informative. This is just an account of how 13 Reasons Why affected me as a person who is suicidal and has Bipolar Disorder II.
The lack of control over my own emotional stability somehow came in handy as the show did not hit me like a low punch to the gut, like triggering stimuli in the past has done. This was fortunate, as there were many incidents in protagonist Hannah Baker’s life that resembled situations I have been in when it comes to sexual violence, false rumours being spread, harassment and bullying.
I may not have been emotionally affected, but I couldn’t help but wonder – “Is there no hope for me, then? Should I take my own life too?” Think of the number of people who watched this show and thought: “I am Hannah”. I don’t believe in the concept of a cure being found in a golden pot at the end of the rainbow nor do I believe in fairytale happy endings, but I do not want something fictional rubbing the idea of impending doom in my face. Real life does that enough as it is.
When it comes to controlling the narrative on suicide – Hannah has every bad thing happen to her, before finally giving up on her own life. She is subject to horrifying things by her peers. What is 13 Reasons Why trying to prove here? That there is a quantitative aspect involved in pushing someone over the edge?
Every time something violent happens to her, she is systematically broken down, which in turn gradually pressurises her into giving up on life. Did it not occur to the makers that impressionable or affected people will be watching this and probably internalising this narrative? The incidents of abuse that Hannah is subject to should not have been reduced to components of a larger, more drastic action. The violence behind all the incidents of abuse needed to be addressed separately. The significant damage caused by each incident needed to be acknowledged and dealt with accordingly.
Realistic does not mean that the makers can take any liberty with the portrayal. Neither does realistic mean get graphic with it. But the makers outdid themselves when portraying incidents of rape and suicide. Images from these scenes seared themselves into my brain. Was any thought given to what those who are suicidal and survivors of sexual abuse would go through if they saw those scenes?
I do not want something fictional rubbing the idea of impending doom in my face. Real life does that enough as it is.
If they thought they were bluntly sending out a message stating ‘don’t rape’ or ‘don’t commit suicide’ – well, they failed. The rape scenes, besides pissing me off, just scared me from parties thrown by or attended by men. Was there a moral policing angle in place here as well?
Again, the crucial fault of 13 Reasons Why lay in vouching for itself as part of the discourse on mental health. The bleakness in this series only goes to show production studios profiting off of trauma. Trauma is not viewership fodder. The topic of mental health has to have a dialogue on help and access to help attached to it. After the series aired, there was a large hike on internet searches concerning suicide.
In hindsight, I am genuinely surprised that something this irresponsible and callous was picked up for a second season. Please, by all means, make shows that engage with sexual violence, bullying and suicide. But please be responsible about it. Or at least stop pretending that you are initiating a dialogue on mental health, or that 13 Reasons Why is socially ‘woke’. Call yourselves a mind-numbing mystery-thriller, without any actual thrilling elements of the latter.
Featured Image Source: NME